5 Dec 2013

Expert eyes Fiji as classic case of transition

6:08 pm on 5 December 2013

An expert who has studied autocratic regimes moving towards democracy says the transition in Fiji has a high chance of success if both the regime and its opponents have moderates at the helm.

Dr Paul Buchanan, who is a former US government consultant on Latin American politics and security, says the best scenario involves moderates or softliners on each side coming to informal agreements and guarantees before the elections.

PAUL BUCHANAN: The key here, if you think of it in terms of game theory, is that the moderates in the regime, people who are, let's say, not associated with the imprisonments and physical beatings of opposition folk need to gain the ascendancy within the regime. And the same has to happen with the opposition. Usually the moderate opposition are those that have not been directly affected by physical violence or economic exclusion. And if those two sides can become dominant in their respective camps then the chances of Fiji actually transiting to a real democracy are much higher than if either side is dominated by hardliners. This is something that happens in all transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. The opposition has to bite the bullet, and as much as a thirst for revenge, and in cases that I'm very familiar with in Latin America we're talking the torture and death of family members, you just have to bite the bullet in the interests of achieving a democratic objective down the road and then maybe down the road in 15 or 20 years bring those responsible for authoritarian atrocities to justice. But you can't do it immediately because the regime will never allow it and they have the guns.

But Paul Buchanan says there's nothing to indicate the hardliners in the Fiji regime do not have the upper hand and they would survive even if elections were cancelled yet again.

PAUL BUCHANAN: The fact is these top-down transitions are controlled affairs in which the outgoing regime becomes the incoming regime under different garb. And then if things go well eventually down the road there is what is known as the consolidational election, which is when for the first time power is handed off to the opposition in truth and the opposition behaves and doesn't exact revenge and plays by the rules of the game as established by the new constitution.

Dr Buchanan says a full transition can take 10 to 15 years. He says in the case of Latin American regimes and South Korea, a hand-picked Electoral Commission to oversee the polls was the norm with no pretence of impartiality.

PAUL BUCHANAN: In all of these cases, the regimes made very clear that if the elections proceeded in a way that could lead to, quote unquote, excesses or could lead to unexpected outcomes that were unacceptable to the political leadership of the regime and its economic factors, which in the case of most of these countries that I've just mentioned was finance capital, big banks, big farming. They like these authoritarians so their interests had to be guaranteed before they would allow the transition to go further. A very clear example is in Chile. They had to agree that the Chilean model, the new economic model that was imposed on them by force had to be accepted. They had to explicitly say that they would not reverse the market-driven project of the Pinochet era, because if they did that would provoke a coup. They also had to agree no Communist party would be part of any coalition government. And all the other parties, including the Socialist party, had to agree to that. So they agreed to exclude some of their brethren in order to be able to get through what's called the transition door.

Dr Buchanan says Fiji is a classic case where regime interests have to be guaranteed in the first instance for a successful transition to occur.

PAUL BUCHANAN: And the opposition has to agree to that. They don't have to write it down, but they have to agree to it in informal meetings and respect the terms of that agreement should they actually win, for the transition to occur. And most of them, if they're mature enough and have looked at the comparative scope of things, will know that they will not win this election, but by virtue of having competed under the rules as set out by the regime, they will be allowed to compete more effectively down the road.